March, 1250 B.C.
March, Year 1 After the Event
Ian Arnstein wandered down the street, pushing the bicycle he'd just bought with his last two-hundred-dollar traveler's check; he always felt ridiculous riding one of the things—another of the drawbacks of being several inches over six feet. And I never even liked basketball. It was a cruelly pretty day, blue sky and wisps of cloud, warm enough that he was comfortable in a long-sleeved shirt and no jacket. There were daffodils set out in pots, and the whole town had the scrubbed, fresh-painted air that it always did… and nothing was the same. He wheeled the bicycle into the guesthouse where he was staying and up the stairs into his room, and stood looking at the fireplace.
"Still functional, I suppose," he said to himself, stroking his bushy reddish-brown beard; it had stayed luxuriant while the hair vanished from the top of his head. Except for that he might have been a face off an Assyrian bas-relief, heavy hooked nose and strong features, apart from the mild scholar's eyes.
When winter came, a working fireplace…
The bags and boxes from the grocery store nearly hid-it—nearly hid the whole wall, come to that. Spare clothing, canned food, dried peas, everything he could think of. There hadn't been many people in the stores, and he'd still been able to write traveler's checks, which proved that nobody had thought through the implications of the rumors. He looked at his watch. Nearly noon. Unbelievable rumors, but they accounted for what had happened better than anything else.
Time for the Town Meeting. That was going to be crowded. It was also probably going to determine whether or not he met a long, nasty death in the coming months. Possibly whether he was killed for the meat on his bones. He shivered. That was the problem with the sort of reading he did for recreation. History undermined certain comfortable assumptions about how human beings acted…
He sat at the desk, slumped with his head in his hands. At this point in the type of novel that was his favorite reading the hero would be brimming with ideas, getting people moving, organizing things, providing some leadership.
"The problem is," he said to himself, "I couldn't lead three sailors into a whorehouse. Somebody else will have to do it."
"The moderator's not… available," the town clerk said.
"What do you mean, not available!" Jared Cofflin answered, frantic. "Look, Joseph, we've got to get this Town Meeting under way."
The old man nodded somberly. "But Alan Scinters isn't going to moderate it," he said.
The sound from the crowd out in the auditorium of the high school was growing louder, more insistent. To Cofflin's ears it was beginning to sound uncomfortably like the mob on Main Street last night.
There was supposed to be room for seven hundred and fifty, plus another hundred and fifty in the little annex where nonvoters sat. From the noise, there were more than a thousand heads crammed in, and more milling around in the corridors outside. The auditorium was named after a former principal of the old Nantucket High School; it was big, a broad blunt wedge with concrete steps that were upholstered in blue where people sat and left bare in the strips they were supposed to use for stairs. The whole idea had been sold to the Town Meeting as a civic center and place for amateur theatricals as well as a school facility.
The principal had been a fearsome old biddy, by all accounts, and she'd ruled with an iron hand for the best part of two generations. He tried to imagine how she'd have handled this.
"Why isn't Scinters going to do it?"
"Because he and the chairman of the board of selectmen have been in Boston since Friday last!" Joseph Starbuck snapped. "Of the other four selectmen, Vida… Dr. Coleman has her under sedation." The town clerk's mouth shut like a steel trap. "Along with about a hundred others right now. Four suicides, he says, and a dozen attempted. Jane's babbling, and that leaves Tom and Clarice."
Cofflin blinked: those two weren't the brightest of the lot. "Well, somebody's got to do it. Listen to them out there! They need someone who sounds like he knows what he's doing. You're the town clerk."
"I'm not up to it. Too old, getting set in m'ways. Afraid you'll have to do it, Cofflin."
"Me? I'm the police chief, not an elected official!"
"You're also the only one who seems to be doing anything much. You know what's going on. Get out there, man, or we'll have a riot on our hands."
For a moment Jared Cofflin felt his mind stutter. I wanted someone to take over! The reality of what he'd found on the mainland still sat in his mind like a lump of stodgy food, refusing to split up and move through the rest of his brain. If he couldn't come to terms with this… event, how on earth was he going to help everyone else do it? They all want someone to take over, and they want it now.
Jared Cofflin took a deep breath and walked out onto the stage. The acoustics were superb, enough to bring across the rasp of fear and building rage in the crowd's undertone. These people were in fear of their lives, and if the man who spoke didn't give them something to calm their terror they might well rip him into quite literal pieces. And then go on to destroy the town and any chance of saving their lives in a surge of blind ferocity.
He walked out to the podium and stood in front of the meeting, shoulders slightly hunched as if he was facing into a winter storm. "All right," he began. "You know we're still not in contact with anyone on the mainland. Some of you have probably heard why. Now I'll tell you all. The whole—" he suppressed the word that came to mind— "damned island is back in, well, in the past."
The noise burst over him like surf. He quieted it—somehow, eventually—and went on: "Over at the observatory, Ms. Rosenthal—" he nodded to where she sat not far from him—"used the computer and telescope there to figure it out."
"What if they're wrong? Computers—" someone shouted.
"You may not have noticed," Cofflin said, stung into heavy sarcasm, "but we're still cut off from the mainland. Because there isn't any mainland, at least, no buildings or roads. Just wilderness. I went and took a look personally. Nothing but trees and Indians with spears.
"Quiet! We're not going to get anything done by shouting!" Cofflin bellowed, angry at last and somehow no longer in the least afraid. "George, Matt, Susan, get those people there out of here!"
Most of those who'd broken down let themselves be led away quietly. One had to be put in a hammerlock and handcuffed. "Put him in the cells—he can cool off overnight," Cofflin said. Unfortunately, that was one of the town selectmen. There goes half of what's left of our elected government.
The babble subsided. "All right, now you know. Andy Toffler and me and Ms. Rosenthal here, and Lieutenant Walker from the Eagle, flew over to the mainland this morning. There's no Hyannis, and there's no Boston, no roads and no buildings. The Indians threw spears at us. We took some pictures—Andy, could you get that projector working?"
The wounded pilot wheeled his chair about on the dais, slipping the pictures they'd taken under an overhead projector that threw them enlarged onto a pull-down screen.
The pictures flicked on, sharp close-ups of the Indian camp. Then a blurred one as Doreen dove for cover, and then another series done with steady clarity. She may have been on the verge of a breakdown, but she kept doing her share of the work, he thought with respect. Good pictures too: an Indian winding up, running forward, the streak of the spear, then the weapon standing in the ground. At last two of each of the wounded Indians, close-ups of their faces and gear.
"Captain Alston of the Coast Guard ship Eagle—the Eagle was just offshore last night and ended up here with us, for those of you who didn't know—has something to say. Let's let Captain Alston talk, people," he said.
His own voice was hoarse, his head ringing with too little sleep and too much coffee. Captain Alston cleared her throat. Hard weathered hands turned the uniform cap as she stood, then stopped as if she was forcing herself not to fidget. Otherwise she stood calm as a statue, a welcome contrast to how most people were acting.
"We were near the edge of the, ah, phenomenon," she said.
Her Southern accent made her voice soft, but the diction was oddly precise, almost finicky, as if every word was carefully chosen. The voice of an autodidact, self-educated.
"It evidently, ah, transposed an ellipse of ocean as well as the island, reachin' several miles offshore; we've seen evidence of that—dead fish caught at the rim, and so fo'th. The only thing we could tell about it was that it was electrical in nature—there were static discharges and effects on our electronic equipment. My observations of the stars confirm Ms. Rosenthal's. The stars have moved, and the shift's… the same sort that would be produced by bein'… thrown back in time. How long did you say, Ms. Rosenthal?" She pronounced the title miz.
"The spring of 1250 B.C.," Rosenthal said. "Three thousand two hundred and forty-eight years before the present. Before what was… before the… transition event."
"All right, now," Cofflin said when order had been restored. "Doc Coleman?"
Coleman, a lean, bony man in his sixties who headed the island's hospital-clinic, stood up. "I'm treating the… Indian. His leg wound's stabilized. He's never been vaccinated, he's got no fillings or other dental work on his teeth—remarkably good teeth, by the way—and from the X-rays, he's had several broken bones that healed without benefit of casts."
"All right," Cofflin said. "We've obviously got an emergency here. We're…" It was hard to go on. "We're back in the past, somehow—the whole island is. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
Someone raised his hand. Cofflin recognized him vaguely, as much because of the way he looked as for a few brief exchanges of words; some sort of professor who spent part of his summers here. A Californian; tall, balding, with a brown bush of beard and beak-nosed. He looked a lot calmer than most of the people here. Maybe he'd keep people paying attention until things quieted down.
"Ian Arnstein—Dr. Ian Arnstein. I'm a professor of classical history at the University of San Diego. I was wondering if anyone had considered the implications of what's happened to us."
The Westerner looked around. "Look, either… whatever happened will reverse itself, or it won't. If it goes into reverse, we don't have to worry. We do have to worry if it doesn't. We're all in danger of death if it doesn't."
"How so, professor?" Cofflin asked. We're in danger of complete chaos, sure enough. That had been his main worry.
"Chief Cofflin, there's no United States out there. There are no oil refineries, no farms to ship us produce, no A&P to deliver vegetables and canned food. No factories. Once we use anything up, it's gone unless we replace it ourselves. What are we going to eat? Winter's coming in another seven months; what are we going to heat houses with? Banks, money—it's all worthless now."
That brought complete silence. The sheer weirdness of what had happened had overwhelmed most, to the exclusion of practical matters. Cofflin was impressed. This one is a thinker, he decided. Then the thought struck home.
"You have any ideas, Professor Arnstein?" he said calmly, while he scribbled a note: Get the guards back on the stores SOONEST. He handed the note to his assistant. The man nodded and hurried out.
"Well, yes. I've, ah, I've read a lot of speculative fiction about things like this, and I'm a historian. We need to get organized. Supplies will have to be rationed. We have to get working on inventory so we know what it is we've got, and then we have to conserve everything that can't be replaced. We need to start building up our food supplies. It ought to be possible to fish—the fishing grounds around here should be fantastically rich—and we should see what can be grown. There will be whales. We could get firewood and so forth from the mainland—and maybe we could trade, as well."
"Indians!" someone shouted. "We could get corn from the Indians, like the Pilgrims."
"If you hadn't shot at them," Pamela Lisketter said.
Cofflin recognized her too, a member of the flake-and-nut contingent, a weaver who sold fantastically expensive handmade blankets to support a "simple" lifestyle. She was a tall thin woman, her only noticeable features large green-gold eyes and an air of intense conviction; she was involved in every good cause, and a great many marginal ones as well.
"Ms. Lisketter," Cofflin said, "I assure you we acted strictly in self-defense. Now please let Professor Arnstein finish."
Arnstein shook his head. "We can trade for hides and game, maybe, but not corn. If this is the thirteenth century B.C., the local paleo-Indians will still be pure hunter-gatherers. Maize hasn't gotten far out of Mexico yet. There were farming villages… ah, there are farming villages away down in Mexico and Central America, but even the Olmecs haven't happened yet, or maybe they're just starting. I'd have to look it up."
A hand went up, and Cofflin nodded. The chief librarian of the Athenaeum rose, Martha Stoddard, a spinster lady of about forty, dry and spare; archaeology was her hobby.
"The Olmecs built… are building…" For a moment uncharacteristic puzzlement showed on her slightly horse-like Yankee face. "Well, the first Olmec ceremonial centers were started about the thirteenth century B.C. at San Lorenzo, yes, and the first Chavin temples in Peru. Dr. Arnstein is right about the local Indians, I'm afraid. Not paleo-Indians, late Archaic phase. No farming to speak of. Possibly some gardens with squash and gourds, but no corn. You said that there was forest down to the water's edge near Boston?"
"Ayup, Ms. Stoddard."
"There you are, then. When the Puritans arrived, that was all open land around there—cleared by Indians for cornfields and fuel. That hasn't happened yet."
She sat down again, and Arnstein continued: "Europe, though, Europe is in the Bronze Age. We could get grain there. We do have a ship."
Everyone looked at Captain Alston. "I'm willing to help," she said. "But Dr. Arnstein is right—we need to get organized."
Arnstein nodded vigorously. "We need an executive—a president, a coordinator, something like that. And a council. I don't exactly know the procedures for your Town Meetings, but I'd like to propose—"
"Hey, he's not a registered voter in this town!" Lisketter exclaimed. "He's an off-islander!"
You're one to talk, Pamela Lisketter, Cofflin thought.
Granted she'd been on the island ten years, and was quite popular with her own crowd, but she was a coof nonetheless.
Cofflin knocked his empty water glass on the podium as a makeshift gavel. "We're all locals now," he said sharply. "Think about it for a moment, people."
Arnstein had stopped, uncertain. He cleared his throat and went on: "I'd like to propose Chief Cofflin as… ah, as chief executive officer for the duration of the emergency or until we come up with something better."
The town clerk shot to his feet. "Seconded!"
"Now, wait a—" Cofflin began. Hands shot up all over the room.
"Carried by acclamation," the man said.
You're going to regret this, Joseph Starbuck, Cofflin thought with a glower.
Arnstein spoke again. "I'd also like to propose that the chief executive officer appoint a council to propose measures to get us through this emergency. We can elect a… a legislature later, but we need to do things right now if we're going to pull through."
"Seconded!" Joseph Starbuck said again.
The hands shot up again. Cofflin's neck bristled slightly; he could feel the mood of the meeting shifting, turning from unfocused rage to an equally unbalanced hope. It could turn again as quickly, if he disappointed it.
"All right," Cofflin said. "And you're one, Joseph. Captain Alston, you're another; Professor Arnstein, Ms. Rosenthal, Ms. Lisketter, Ms. Brand"—who owned Brand Farms, the island's main nursery and truck-garden operation— "and the rest of the selectmen."
"Chief," Dr. Coleman said, touching his sleeve as the last of the townsfolk straggled out. "A word."
"The Indian's dying," he said.
Cofflin blinked surprise. "You said his leg was stable?" he said mildly.
"It is," Coleman nodded. "That's not it. As far as I can tell, he's dying of the common cold. Possibly the flu, but it looks more like a monster cold on steroids, and that's what Ms. Rosenthal has. I thought it might be better to tell you quietly."
"Nobody dies of a cold, Doc."
"I know that, but he's managing it somehow. Progressive congestion of the nasal and bronchial passages, faster than I can drain, fever over a hundred and seven. Nothing I've got works." He shook his head. "It came on like wildfire. It's as if his immune system had no resistance at all, as if he were a petri dish full of a growth solution."
Arnstein had come up while they were speaking. "Virgin field," he murmured.
Cofflin's eyes flew open. He remembered Rosenthal sneezing. Coleman was nodding somberly.
"It's what they call it when a disease hits a population with no previous exposure," he said quietly. "The results can be… unpleasant. Minor diseases, childhood diseases, they become killers."
Arnstein bobbed his head; he was six-six, and seemed accustomed to directing his body language downward. "Ninety percent of the Indians in the Americas died within a century of Columbus," he said. "Never been exposed to the Afro-Eurasian disease environment. It might be even worse here."
"Why?" Cofflin whispered.
"Well, we don't have smallpox, thank God, but these Indians—they're a lot more thinly scattered, less numerous than the ones the European discoverers met, would have met, three thousand years from now. There probably aren't any epidemic diseases at all, and not many endemic ones. But now…" he shrugged. "Measles… I wonder if anyone here has measles? We'd better check. That could be very bad. Even in Europe and Asia, it didn't arrive in the Roman Empire until the second century, but when it did a quarter of the population died of it. Hmmm…" He trailed off, mumbling.
"Jesus," Cofflin said.
Coleman's face had turned pale. "I'll… we'll have to be very careful, very careful, with anyone who touches shore off this island. I'm going to start checking to see if anyone has measles."
"Measles, syphilis, anything like that," Arnstein said. "Otherwise, we could exterminate whole groups just by breathing on them."
"Jesus." Cofflin kneaded his eyes in a vain attempt to dislodge what felt like hot sand.
"I should test," Coleman said. "For everything. AIDS, too… of course, I can't test the entire…" Suddenly a grim smile lit his face. "Wait a minute. I can do that. Can't I?"
"Doctor, you can do anything you please for the public good right now. Anything you can get past me and the Town Meeting, that is."
"And that's the situation, people," Captain Alston said.
She was speaking from the quarterdeck bridge above the pilothouse, with the ship's officers around her. The crew covered the main deck, standing by divisions as if for an inspection at Quarters, all within easy hearing distance. They murmured, the sound growing louder and louder, until the petty officers and boatswain shouted for quiet.
Easier to deal with than civilians, she thought. The town meeting ashore had been the next thing to a riot, and it had lasted most of the day. At least you could tell people in uniform to shut up and listen. She glanced over at Nantucket; they'd dropped anchor in the dredged channel that led to the steamer dock, there being no room to tie up with the big ferry at its moorings. For the moment she was just as glad not to be at quayside. The situation on board would be easier to handle if it could be kept isolated from the rest of the island for a little while.
This anchorage is going to be a bitch in rough weather, she thought, her mind distracted for a moment. Sheltered enough for ordinary storms, but in a really stiff norther… When full quiet had been restored, she went on:
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're in an… unprecedented situation. There is no United States Coast Guard. There is no United States. We're marooned, adrift in time."
She pointed. "A little more than seven thousand of us altogether, and the rest of the planet in a state of savagery. However, we still need discipline and organization. Accordingly, anyone who wants to take his or her chance ashore may do so now. Those who wish to remain with the ship will be under orders as before, and I'm placing the ship at the disposal of Chief Cofflin and the Council in Nantucket. There may be no United States, but these people are still Americans—and helping them is what we're in this uniform for."
"What about our families?" someone called.
Alston clamped her hands behind her back. "There's nothing to be done about that. Everyone and everythin' we knew is gone. People, either this… whatever it was will reverse itself, or it won't," she said. "If it does, everything is back to normal—except that y'all make your fortunes on the talk-show circuit."
That brought a shaky laugh. She went on: "But we have to operate on the assumption that it won't. Because if it doesn't, and we sit down and wait for a return that doesn't happen, we're all going to die. If we work, we may pull through. As for our people ashore… they'll have to assume we were lost, somehow. Nobody knows what happened back up in the… future." It was still a little hard to say it. "At a guess, the year 1998 got the Nantucket that should be here, in which case they'll have some inkling of what happened to us. Grief is natural, but we've no time to sit down and cry."
Not if I have any say in the matter, she added mentally.
Keeping people too busy to think was an ancient military tradition, and for very good reason. She hadn't asked to be stuck in this situation, but things weren't going to fall apart if she had anything to do with it. The United States Coast Guard, or the Lord God Almighty, or fate, or whatever, had left them in her hands.
The uproar began as she finished speaking. It lasted far into the night, and ended with half a dozen cadets and a couple members of her crew sedated or under restraint.
"But nobody," she said in the officers' wardroom, "wants to jump ship."
"I think it may have struck them that at least they get rations here," Hiller said.
Like her, the sailing master didn't have any ties ashore. Well, she had two children, but they'd gone with their father in the divorce and that was going on fifteen years ago. Wouldn't have done any good to fight for custody, not in South Carolina with what John knew and threatened to reveal if she contested, and it would have wrecked her career when things came out. At least John had warned her first, not just blabbed to the wind.
Some of the other officers still looked as if they'd been hit behind the ear with a sandbag. Most of them did have people back when. Walker, now, Walker looked excited. She had her doubts about him, anyway. Intelligent, hard-working, and they even shared a hobby in the martial arts, but there was something…
"Speaking of rations, how are we found?" she asked.
The fuel-oil tanks were full—they'd topped up in New London before they left. Thank God for small mercies. The Eagle's auxiliary was a fairly recent thousand-horsepower Caterpillar diesel named Max, practically immortal given that the ship's own machine shop could make most replacement parts; the generators and freshwater plant ran off the same fuel system. Oil would be the weak point. Wind only from now on, she thought. We use the auxiliary on nothing but real emergencies.
"Ma'am," the quartermaster said. "We'll be out of fresh vegetables and the like shortly. Flour, canned and dried goods, and so forth, maybe four weeks. But ma'am, two hundred people take a lot of feeding."
"Reduced rations immediately then. Use the perishables first, and I'll talk to Chief Cofflin and see what they can spare from shore. From what Lieutenant Walker says, the fishing and so forth will be very good. We can lend a hand with that right away. We'll also probably be making a run to England—well, to the British Isles, whatever they're called here-and-now—to trade for grain. I'd like your ideas on that ASAP, by tomorrow morning, if you please."
Officers needed to be kept busy too. "Also on how we can convert the ship for operations in a low-tech environment. More fuel's out of the question, and so are electronics or most machine parts except those we can make in the shop on board or get from the island. We'll be lucky to get cordage and sails."
"Captain Alston." That was the former operations officer, Sandy Rapczewicz, now acting XO. She was a competent-looking woman in her thirties with a weathered, pug-nosed Slavic face; her eyes were red, but she seemed calm enough. A teenaged son ashore, Alston remembered, and a husband. "I was just thinking. We're in the past, right?"
She nodded. Rapczewicz went on: "But if we, um, do things—make contact with the locals, that sort of thing— won't we, um, sort of change the way things happened? It isn't in the history books, thousands of people and a ship appearing in Moses' time."
Silence fell around the table. Alston nodded. "Sandy, you're right." Some of the officers were beginning to look frightened. "On shore, I talked about that to some of Cofflin's Council, a history professor and an astronomer, and the town librarian, who's an amateur archaeologist." Odd what types ended up on Nantucket, but it wasn't your average island. "One thing they agreed on—even if we all dropped dead tomorrow morning, we've already changed history."
"How's that, Captain? We haven't done anything yet."
"We're here. A lot of buildings and so forth are here, including brick and concrete and stone that'll last. When Europeans arrived, they'd find the ruins. More important, the islanders already sent some people ashore, they had contact with the Indians—and according to the doctor in charge of the local clinic, the one they brought back is dying of the common cold."
That brought everyone up. "The person with the cold sneezed on one of the others on shore, too, which means their whole tribe probably has it by now. You think that isn't going to change history? They'll pass it on, since not all of them will keel over at once. And as a practical matter, everyone on the island isn't going to drop dead tomorrow. People will try to survive. Even if everything goes wrong, hundreds will be around for years, and everything they do will change things."
Rapczewicz crossed herself. "Then we could be destroying the future—everyone we know, the whole country."
"If we have, we've already done it. Think it through. We're still here, so the history that produced us is too, somewhere, probably. Arnstein—the history professor— thinks that what'll happen is that there will be two futures, the one we came from, and the one that happens because we landed here. Rosenthal, the scientist, says that that could be—something to do with quantum mechanics."
"Yeah, the Many Worlds interpretation. We studied it in physics," Lieutenant Walker said thoughtfully.
Alston cleared her throat. "In any case, it's irrelevant. We can't do anything about it. Even mass suicide, which is not going to happen, wouldn't change the fact that we're here and the consequences that follow. But we do have to eat, y'all will recollect. So, ladies and gentlemen, let's get down to some serious plannin'."
The meeting went on for hours. As the officers left for their bunks, Alston signaled to Walker to stay. "Lieutenant, I think you've had an idea that you're not sharing."
"Ma'am," the young man said. He hesitated. "It's just that there are so many possibilities here."
"Including death by starvation, unfortunately. That has to be our maximum priority for the present."
The younger officer had a boyishly open face, green eyes, and a mop of reddish-brown hair; he looked like an overgrown Huck Finn. And I can believe that as much as I want to, she thought.
"Thank you, ma'am."
Alston sighed and sat alone, cradling her coffee and wishing for a drink. Coast Guard ships were dry, though, just like the Navy's. Like the Navy's had been… would be… whatever.
She poured another cup. Thinking about what had happened made her head hurt even worse. She'd considered drawing a trank herself, she needed the sleep, but no. She also needed her wits if something happened. Lucky for her she'd never been able to strike any deep roots, anywhere. At least she was used to disadvantages.
What more can the Supreme Ironist do? Let's see, you're a woman. A black woman. A black woman who came up through the ranks. A black, ex-ranker, divorced woman. A black, ex-ranker, divorced, gay woman. A black, ex-ranker, divorced, gay woman in charge of a ship. A black, ex-ranker, divorced, gay woman in command of a ship thrown back three thousand years in time with a crew getting more hysterical by the moment. What else could happen?
She had an uneasy feeling she'd find out.
The Nantucket Council was meeting around an office table in the Town Building, on Broad Street down by the Whaling Museum. The building was eighteenth-century brick Georgian on the outside, late-twentieth Institutional Bland inside. Voices sounded through open windows as outside, slippery mounds of fish were manhandled into boxes, garbage bags, and the backs of pickups and the island's ubiquitous Jeep Cherokees for distribution. The smell was already fairly powerful.
Cofflin rapped his knuckles on the table and spoke: "All right, people, we've toted it up, and with strict rationing we've got enough food for about two to three weeks from our reserves. Thank God not many of the summer people had arrived, but we're still up against it. Captain Alston? What's the fishing situation?"
Marian Alston had been sitting quietly, making notes now and then. Occasionally she would change a small ball of hard rubber from one hand to another, squeezing steadily.
"There are two real trawlers operating out of Nantucket, and another that was here from Mattapoisett, sheltering from rough weather. As long as the fuel lasts, they can pull in enough to give everyone on the island a pound or more of fish a day—the schools of cod and herring and flounder and whatnot out there have to be seen to be believed. The main problem is breaking nets because the yields are so heavy."
"Thank God for that," Cofflin said. "Both Nantucket trawlers were slated to be junked next year," he went on. He'd been a commercial fisherman himself for a while, between getting out of high school and joining the Navy; he'd gone into police work after that. Like most trades that were really essential, working the nets had paid squat and had zero prospects. Back up in the twentieth, at least. Here the priorities were different.
Alston nodded. "As long as the fuel lasts, they'll be very useful. When it's gone, which will be fairly soon, they're useless. We can adapt the scallop boats to long-line hand fishing—there's an old man on the island we found who knows the technique, and we've got him giving lessons to yachtsmen and they're teaching others. We can use the sailing yachts too. They won't be what you'd call efficient, but they'll do for seine netting. Without fuel to spare, the motorboats are worthless—unless we cut them down and convert them to dories. I've got some parties workin' on that, too, but we're short of beams, planks, wood of all kinds."
"No problem there." Cofflin pushed a pile of papers across the table. "Here's a list of surplus buildings. Use the materials. Lord knows the island's got plenty of house carpenters—they're yours for this. Get in touch with Sam Macy. He's about the best housebuilder, and everyone knows him." He paused. "Bottom line, what are the fishing prospects?"
"Good. We're landing several tons a day already. Even shore fishing is yielding significant amounts. The hand techniques should be coming online about the time we run out of motor fuel for the trawlers, giving us our daily needs and about a quarter or more over for reserves. The problem is preservation. We need salt, and lots of it. Even more when we start bringing in whalemeat."
"Whales! You can't kill whales." Pamela Lisketter gasped.
The other members of the Council looked down the table at her. "Why not?" Rosenthal snapped.
"They're an endangered species!"
"Not here they're not," Captain Alston said. "They're a navigation hazard. You can't sail five miles out there without bumping into the damned things. We need the meat, and we need oil for lighting and cooking, and the rest of them we can grind up and use on the crops."
She turned to the farm owner. "Ms. Brand, we'll also be producing a lot of fish offal, by-products. Good fertilizer, I understand."
Dr. Coleman cut in. "Save the livers of the cod. We're going to have problems with vitamin deficiencies, too. I've rounded up all the supplements and pills on the island, but with the shortage of fresh greens and fruits you're projecting, we may have actual scurvy by winter."
Cofflin nodded. "Right now, we'll eat fresh fish and whale meat, plus perishables, and save all the canned goods and other keepers for the winter to eke out what we salt down and preserve and what we can grow. Doc, we should be able to get wild fruits and berries. Would cranberries and blueberries help? We've got a couple of hundred acres of cranberry bog, right enough."
"If they're properly preserved, yes, they'll help with the vitamin problem."
Martha Stoddard tapped the table in her turn, with one finger. "There are a lot of wild plants that have useful quantities of vitamins, and edible seaweed too. My Girl Scout troop was doing a project on them. Some of the seaweed can be dried, as well. Dulse, for example—health food stores sell dried dulse as a snack. High in vitamin C."
"Good," Cofflin said. "Why don't you and the doctor get together on that?"
"Medicinal herbs too," Coleman said. "I'm experimenting with producing simple antibiotics, but we're going to be short of a good deal else."
"Good. Now that we know we're not going to starve to death right away, what about the next few months to a year?" Cofflin said. He looked over at Angelica Brand.
"I'm sorry, Chief, but my operation is basically for flowers and luxury vegetables," she said. "There's only the greenhouses, and about a hundred acres under vegetables every summer, and that's a drop in the bucket."
Cofflin restrained an impulse to run his hands through his hair. Brand Farms was the only real agricultural enterprise on the island. There were a few hobby farms, an herb grower, private vegetable gardens, people who kept a cow or a horse or something, a lone vineyard, and that was it. It had been a long, long time since Nantucket fed itself. Even back in the Revolutionary War there had been famine here when the British blockaded the island, and they'd already been trading whale oil and fish for grain. The manager of the A&P had been invaluable in tracking down all the food reserves, but there just wasn't much. Deliveries from the mainland came three times a week even in winter.
Then Brand struck the palm of her hand to her forehead. "Wait a minute—my off-season cover crop is winter rye. If I don't plow that up for vegetables, we can harvest it, by hand if we have to. Call it a hundred acres at twenty or so bushels… say two thousand bushels of grain. Not until late August, though. That's about…" She punched her calculator. "About one-fifth of our needs for a year, not counting what I'd have to hold back as seed."
"Potatoes," Ian Arnstein said. The others looked at him; he flushed slightly and went on: "Potatoes are a pretty complete diet, they grow well in a sandy soil, and an acre will support two people. They keep well, too. The Irish used to live off potatoes and skim milk. We could live on potatoes and salt fish over the winter, probably."
Angelica Brand went into a huddle with the A&P manager and her secretary and pecked at her calculator. At last she said:
"It's pretty elementary farming, and we've got our usual shipment of seed potatoes on hand at my place. We could plant a couple of hundred acres, although that will cut down on the period for living off stored food," she said. "Plus I can put in a few hundred acres of corn and vegetables, drawing on my own stocks and the stuff from the gardening and supply shops. But I don't have the equipment to cultivate that much, even counting the relics used as lawn ornaments and such I've been tracking down. There isn't that much cleared land on the island, in fact, even if we use lawns and flowerbeds. Incidentally, we should use some of the lawns for fodder, grazing and hay, if we can."
Chief Cofflin closed his eyes, then opened them in decision. "People are going crazy sitting around with nothing to do, anyways." Most of the island's economy depended on tourists. The demand for real estate agents, store clerks, waiters, and cooks had taken an abrupt nosedive. "We'll do the clearing and planting by hand if we have to." He went on, "We'll divide them into teams. Ms. Brand, you use your tractors to do the heavy clearing, plus what earthmoving equipment we can dig up. Then we'll have the teams move in and get ready to plant with hand tools. Anything else you've got seed for, too. Carrots, beets, turnips, you name it. Find the best land and we'll worry about compensation for the owners later, if we live."
"How are we going to pay people to work? It's just sinking in that money isn't worth much anymore," the town clerk said.
That was a good question. "Any ideas?"
Starbuck nodded. "Food. I say anyone who wants to eat, works. We can run a sort of chit system, so many hours drawing so much, and then juggle it. Of course, we'll have to figure out something different for people who can't work, and eventually we'll need a money of our own. But that's going to have to wait."
Martha Stoddard cleared her throat. "The older people, we've got a lot of retirees, they can do things like child-minding. We'll need a day-care system with everybody able-bodied working."
"Good idea, Martha. Yours too, Joseph: work if you want to eat. Damn, you know, that sounds pretty good… Any objections?" Cofflin didn't see any. "Speaking of money, we'll have to make a register of houses, land, and cars and suchlike owned by coo… by people who weren't here when the Event happened. We'll have to commandeer property owned by residents, too, but let's make it clear from the beginning that there'll be compensation eventually."
Everyone nodded. Angelica Brand returned to her specialty:
"Chief, this island is just a big sand dune out in the ocean. There's not much in the way of nutrients in this soil, and I don't have much fertilizer, either. What's more, the best land has the thickest scrub cover."
"Plant everything you can, and you've got the stuff from the composting sewage works." He silently thanked God they'd managed to keep that going, for a few crucial hours a day at least. Without it they might have had plague already. "We can use sludge from septic tanks too, if it's treated—find out how. I'm putting you in charge of food production. Levy the people you need. From now on we're farmers, like it or not."
"Brush," Arnstein said. The others looked at him, and he hurried on: "We have to clear the brush anyway, so we burn it and turn under the ashes. Slash-and-burn farming. The ashes should enrich the soil for a year or two."
Brand nodded and began to make notes. "We'll be short of hand tools. I'll get on to the machine shop. Seahaven Engineering ought to be able to handle what we'll need, them and the plumbers. And seed's going to be a problem next year—these hybrids don't breed true… And I suppose we'll have to keep all the livestock for breeding."
"Everything that can breed," Cofflin agreed.
Martha Stoddard spoke again: "You might try locating wild Jerusalem artichokes, here and on the mainland. They're a native plant. Yield and methods are about like potatoes, and they like a poor sandy soil. They keep well right in the soil overwinter, too."
Cofflin looked at her with respect. "Now, that's an excellent idea, Martha. Perhaps your scout troop could start in on that as well."
"And this being March, the stores would be full of packets of garden seed," Martha went on thoughtfully. "The feed stores might have whole unmilled oats, too. Some of them might sprout."
She paused for a moment. "And get on to Paul Hill-water, the botanist—he's been doing a study of Nantucket's historical ecology for years now. He can advise us on what not to clear, to keep wind erosion down and block salt spray. That used to be quite a problem here when the island was mostly bare."
Angelica Brand nodded and started to speak; Cofflin held up a hand. "Hold off on that for a moment, Angelica. The Professor suggested something. Ron, you heard anything yet you can't handle in the way of toolmaking?"
Ron Leaton, the owner of Seahaven Engineering, was a slender man in early middle age, with long-fingered hands like a violinist. "Oh, I can work up anything you want," he said. "Give me power and bar stock or sheet steel. The problem is there's only one of me. I can do anything, but not everything."
That was a problem. Nantucket simply didn't have much industry. Seahaven was a one-man quasi-hobby; most of Leaton's living had come from his computer dealership, with the machine shop in his basement. At that, it was the sole and singular metalworking facility on the island, unless you counted the high school shop classes and the Eagle's onboard machine shop.
Cofflin pressed his ringers to his forehead. "Let's look at it this way. What have you got, what can it do, and what can you do to do more of it?"
"Ah…" Leaton frowned. "Well, I've got a 1956-type Bridgeport milling machine, with digital controls added on, an old Atlas twelve-by-thirty-six engine lathe, an Atlas horizontal milling machine, a seven-inch Ammco shaper, and I just got in a Schaublin eight-by-eighteen precision tool-making lathe, a real beauty—Swiss. All light-to-medium stuff. There may be more on-island. I'll start looking."
The head of the Nantucket Electric Company cut in: "You made those flanges for us, and some other fairly heavy work. The turbocharger, for instance."
"Yup, but I sort of cheated—used the Bridgeport as a vertical lathe with a rotary table." He looked around. "Forty-eight inches by twenty-nine, machined out of solid five-eighths plate—"
Cofflin cleared his throat. Leaton flushed and continued:
"Bottom line, Chief, is that I could make just about anything, including more tools; a lathe is one of the few tools that can make a copy of itself. It'll be a little awkward without a foundry, but I could make a round bar bed lathe, the Unimat type; it'll work perfectly well, just not as durable as a cast or forged bed. I'm making a tool cutter of my own right now, or was before this all happened."
"Excuse me," Arnstein cut in. "You're saying that eventually you could duplicate your operation, and then duplicate it again, and so forth? And that you can do pretty well any metal shape?"
"Yup," Leaton said, obviously puzzled. "Give me the metal, and yes. Wasn't that what I was saying?"
"You could make, for example, a steam engine?"
"Well, I do that all the time—little ones, and they're working scale models. I've got machinery that can work to ten-thousandths of an inch, and Watt did it with tolerances of an eighth of an inch. I've got a nice set of Weber measuring-gauge blocks, after all. I could turn out, say, a twenty-five-horsepower model in a week, maybe convert an old VW flat-type engine. Need a welder to help me with the boiler… maybe use a propane tank… but hell, we've got half a dozen top-notch welders and some heavy bending rolls. Bit difficult to make really big cylinders without a foundry or casting plant, but I could if you gave me a month or two to tool up. Up to a couple of hundred horsepower. But we don't have the fuel for many of those. Hell, we can't keep the town power plant running for more than six months, no matter how we ration, right, Fred?"
The head of the Electric Company nodded, abstracted; he was making frantic notes.
Cofflin let out a long sigh. "Well, you'll need more space than that basement, and more people. Look up anyone with experience, and, hmm, you and Joseph here scout for a building that'll give you room to expand."
He noticed Lisketter scowling. "Ms. Lisketter, what about your artisans?"
She tapped the edges of the papers in front of her. What are we going to do when we run out of paper? he thought.
"There are dozens of weavers," she said. "And…"
Cofflin was surprised at the cogent, well-organized list that followed. He nodded at the end of it. "Good work, Ms. Lisketter. So we'll be well enough off for clothing when our current stores run out?"
They'd also have a large surplus of silversmiths and graphic artists. And, thank God, a number of metalworkers, farriers, three genuine blacksmiths; one who specialized in blades, a visitor caught here. Plenty of pottery makers, and there was even a glassblower who'd just moved his studio to the island last year.
She shook her head. "We don't have the raw materials.
We need flax and wool—cotton if you can get it. I know it's not our top priority, but…"
Arnstein cleared his throat. "Cotton might be available in the Caribbean or Mexico," he said. "Flax and wool certainly from Europe."
"We could grow flax here—the climate's right. It's a useful oilseed as well. We could get the flax seed along with grain from Europe," Brand said thoughtfully. "Grinding grain might be a problem—"
"Ayup," Cofflin said. "Remember the Old Mill? We'll finally get some use out of the damned tourist trap."
There was a chuckle around the table, particularly from the native islanders. The Old Mill was a shingled windmill, kept functional for the tourist trade.
Brand spoke: "Chief, get me seed and tools and people and I can produce grain. But I'd have to have the seed soon, for spring planting—it looks like the growing season's longer here, but even so, it'll be tight. We could use more animal breeding stock as well. There's some poultry, and those will reproduce fast. It's the larger stock that are the problem. We have a small herd of sheep, good dual-purpose Corriedales; and four stallions, forty-two mares, twenty-one geldings; and some cows, several of them in calf, thank God, so we should get a bull calf or two, but not a pig on the island. Pigs would be ideal—they breed so quickly and eat anything—and we could use ewes, mares and cows as well. They're the limiting factor."
Cofflin looked at Alston. She spread her hands. "I can take the Eagle across the Atlantic easily enough," she said. "Assumin' the winds and currents are basically similar, in about two weeks on the northern route, with a little more to get back. Plus whatever time it takes to dicker with the locals and to load. The Eagle wasn't designed to carry cargo. My only real problem is the stars, now that we're back to celestial navigation as our only means of finding where we are. Everything's slightly off. We can compensate, but it'll take time to figure out how."
Rosenthal spoke: "I can get you a new set of data, complete tables. I'll have the printout to you in a couple of days."
The chief gnawed at his lip, wishing he'd been able to get more sleep. Risking the Eagle was not something he wanted to do, not at all. It was a priceless asset… but an asset had to be used.
"Let's see if we can get some figures here," he said.
They consulted, punched calculators—oh, those are going to be missed when the batteries run out—argued. In the end the results showed that there might be enough to keep them through winter from what they could grow and catch with the resources already on the island… if their assumptions weren't wrong, and everyone pitched in.
"No margin," he said. "That settles it, we need more food." He turned to the Coast Guard officer. "When were you planning on going whaling?" he said.
"We're rigging for it now, and Mr. Leaton has done a fine job, a harpoon gun that ought to work. Tomorrow we start, and we don't think it'll take more than a few days to get all the dead whales you can handle, using a plane for spotting. Some of your people are getting the rending tubs and whatever out of the Whaling Museum right now. Lookin' like they'll be functional."
Cofflin nodded. "Where can we get bulk salt? Anyone know?"
Arnstein cleared his throat. "The Bahamas—Inagua island, down at the southern tip. There are big salt lagoons there, or at least there were in our time. You can scoop it up around the edges with shovels."
Cofflin chuckled. "Damn, but that education of yours is turning out useful."
"Actually I honeymooned there with my late wife. The tour guide told me."
Alston spoke: "That's shoal water. I'd hate to take the Eagle in close there."
Cofflin nodded. "What's that two-master sailing yacht called…"
"The Yare," Alston said. "Wooden-hulled topmast schooner, about a hundred tons burden, Canadian-built, old but still sound. Small auxiliary engine. It's a replica—the original design was a revenue cutter. There's another tied up, the Bentley, seventy-foot schooner, about three-quarters her displacement, but the masts and rigging need work. The Yare can leave anytime. I'll put one of my officers in command."
"All right, we'll send the Yare to Inagua. We send the Eagle east for grain. Everyone draw up your wish lists of things to get that might be there." He paused and thought. "Professor, what should we take for trade goods?"
"Almost anything," Arnstein said. "Cloth, ornaments— with the number of jewelry stores on the island, that should be no problem—metal tools, anything like that. Bits of glass would probably do, wire…"
"I'm putting you in charge of it," Cofflin said. "Incidentally, you're going." Arnstein yelped. "You're the closest thing to an expert on dealing with primitives we have."
"But I won't even be able to talk to them!" Arnstein protested.
"I thought you knew ancient languages?"
"I know Latin, which isn't spoken yet, and Greek, classical Greek, and I've read Homer and looked at the Linear B stuff. But even the classical period's seven hundred years in the future! Homeric Greek is to classical what Shakespeare's English is to ours, and Mycenaean is five hundred years before that, call it Chaucerian. And they won't be speaking Greek on the shores of the English Channel, anyway."
"Neither will anyone else be able to talk to the locals, will they?" Cofflin said.
"Not unless we have a Lithuanian," Arnstein admitted. The others looked at him. "Lithuanian is a very conservative language," he said. "About like Sanskrit, which is being spoken in northwestern India at this date. Indo-European languages should be spreading through western Europe about now, defining now as being the last millennium and a half or so, unless you believe Colin Renfrew's nonsense… sorry, academic squabble. But someone who spoke it would probably be able to pick up any of the early versions of Indo-European fairly quickly, other things being equal." He shrugged. "But how likely are we to find—"
Doreen Rosenthal cleared her throat, twisting a lock of hair around a finger. "My mother came from Vilnus. I speak it," she said.
Martha Stoddard looked up from her notepad. "There's a fairly good languages section at the Athenaeum," she noted. "And I know at least one retired linguist on island. Speaking of which, Jared, we're going to be doing a fair bit of research on one thing and't'other. Old-style ways of doing, and such." She frowned. "Plus we ought to print out some things on CD-ROM, right now, while we can."
"Good idea, Martha. You're in charge of research projects, of course." Cofflin turned his head to the manager of the Nantucket Electric Company. "Fred, how are we fixed for energy?"
"I've got about one month's fuel," he said. "Fuel barge was tied up at the… Event, topping up to take us through to the switchover to the mainland cable. According to the gas stations and boating people, there's enough gasoline for, say, two weeks at normal usage. After that, well, we might be able to get those windmills going again. Remember that wind-farm idea?" Everyone nodded. The tall frames of the wind generators still stuck up out of fields around the town. "That would give us, oh, five, eight percent of our usual output indefinitely."
Cofflin nodded. "We're closing down all private autos as of now," he said. "Official use, ambulances, fire engines, and Angelica's tractors only. The trawlers have first priority. How many bicycles do we have?"
"About thirty-five hundred, counting private, in the rental places, and in the stores."
"Good, that'll help." One advantage of being a tourist trap. "Fred, you get together with Doc Coleman, and we'll arrange an essential-uses-only electricity schedule. That ought to stretch the fuel oil. The rest of us will have to go to bed with the sun until we get whale-oil lanterns. Next…"
It was a relief to be finally doing something.
"We're working like slaves!" the man complained.
He was thirty-something, and from the look of his jeans and plaid shirt, wealthy. Certainly coof—that New York accent was a dead giveaway. Not liking the work much, from the way he straightened and rubbed at his back and threw down his billhook.
I can't blame him, Angelica Brand thought. This is something out of a made-for-TV special. She was a farmer from twelve generations of farmers, but her generation used tractors and genetic engineering.
Pictures of Nantucket from back in her great-grandfather's day showed a landscape that looked like North Dakota, hardly a bush over knee-high, but most of the island was overgrown now with a thick head-high spiny growth of scrub oak, bayberry, beach plum, red cedar, honeysuckle, pitch pine, and God knew what, all laced together with wild grapevines and Rosa rugosa.
The tractors, bulldozers, and earthmoving equipment from construction sites had knocked down much of the aboveground brush. The machines left the scrub still chest-high to head-high, many of the main stems still unbroken. The clumsy untrained labor of hundreds was scarcely sufficient to cut the brush loose and drag it into windrows for burning, especially when most of them had never lifted anything heavier than a computer mouse or a squash racket in their lives. The smell of it was acrid in her nostrils, but the ash would be useful. Clumps of men and women were scattered through the scraggly-looking wreckage she was supposed to turn into a field, hacking and levering and dragging at the roots. Tools were in short supply, too.
Other squads were slumped resting near the truck with the water, hardly even bothering to lie in its shade despite the unseasonable heat. A few were putting a better edge on their tools at the portable grindstone someone had dug out of an attic. It was the foot-powered type, and worth its weight in gold.
The man thrust his hands under her nose. "Look at this!"
Shreds of skin hung down from broken blisters, and bits of the cloth he'd used to wrap his hands clung, sticky with the lymph. Angelica Brand nodded sympathetically. "We've got a tub of ointment back at the house," she said. "When your shift's off, come on up. There's some cider, too."
"I'm a certified public accountant!" the man half screamed. Spittle flung from his lips. "I'm finished with this!"
He'd picked up the billhook again. It had a wooden shaft five feet long, with a steel blade socketed onto the end, like an arm-long single-edged knife with an inward-curving tip at the end.
"You can take this fucking thing and ram it up your ass, bitch!"
Angelica planted her hands on her hips and glared back. "Don't you use language like that to me, mister!" she snapped, fatigue and irritation flaring. "I don't care if you were a rocket scientist. We have to eat this winter. Or do you think somebody's going to dock with a ship full of bananas and Big Macs?"
"I'm an accountant, not a farmer!"
"We don't need accountants right now. And if you don't work, you don't get any rations. No exceptions for the able-bodied."
A woman's voice shouted: "Don! No!"
The accountant ignored it. Brand's anger turned to a yell of fear as the man swung at her with the billhook. If he hadn't been staggering with exhaustion he might have hit her. A root caught at her boot and she went over backward, staring at the sunlight breaking off the edge of the heavy tool as he swung it upward.
Thunk. The butt end of another billhook drove into the berserker's back. He screamed and whirled, but a third tripped him. Men and women piled on, wrestling him to the ground and holding him despite his thrashings.
"Obliged, Ted," Angelica said shakily, getting to her feet and dusting herself off. The man nodded silently, which was like Theodore Corby; she'd known him since she was a girl, and he never used a word where an economical movement of the chin would do. "Much obliged."
She looked around. "Well, nobody said to stop working!" she called. "Come on, everyone, there's a job to be done!"
"What'll we do with this guy?"
The man had stopped roaring and heaving. Now he was lying prone in the dirt and ash, crying noisily.
"I…" She hesitated. I run a vegetable farm! she thought. Five to fifty people worked on it, according to season, and this had never happened before. "Bring him along. We'd better call the Chief."
"Ooooh, gross. Totally, totally gross."
Ned Shaw turned. The girl was looking at the yard-long cod she'd just pulled in; the lines were arranged over a rollbar around the boat, to make hauling easier. The big fish swayed, flapping, thirty-odd pounds of bad temper on the end of a heavy hook and line.
"Tie it off, tie it off!" he barked, pushing down the crowded deck. He'd been a scalloper most of his life, done some other fishing, but he'd never seen anything like that fish.
The girl made a face, but she swung the line inboard and paid out, letting the cod drop to the boards of the deck. It flopped and jumped, and she skittered backward.
"Like this," Shaw said.
He put a boot on the fish—it must weigh thirty-five pounds and it wasn't happy at all—and swung a length of stick with a heavy steel nut on the end. Two crunching blows and the fish was still.
"That's good eating, that cod," the fisherman said, heaving it into the well in the center of the boat with a grunt of effort. Mebbe forty, forty-five.
His crew—clerks, salesgirls, high school students, shopkeepers, computer operators—looked at the fish and swallowed. They were all hungry, but…
Then the lines began to jerk all around him. "Get to it!" he yelled.
Lines whirred. Cod came up them; sometimes two or three of the crew would have to pull on a single line, and once a six-foot monster came over the side with people yelling and dancing to get out of its way. That one Shaw pinned to the deck with a boathook, and it took half a dozen two-handed blows of the club to kill it. He looked up, panting. The well in the center of the twenty-foot boat was full of fish, a slippery blue-gray mound of them. The deck was slimy underfoot, covered in scales; the crew were equally smeared, the hair of the women hanging in rattails. They grinned back at him.
"Good day's work," he said. "Get the tarpaulin over them and we'll head in. Lucky we don't have to clean them."
The girl who'd caught the first fish of the day daubed at herself. "Gross," she muttered.
I might as well get something out of this damned chivalry nonsense, Cassandra King thought.
A gentleman gave place to an unaccompanied gentlewoman as a matter of course. Normally it annoyed her no end; a pedestal was a very bad starting place in the race of life. Today she took ruthless advantage, cutting in near the head of the line filing out of the lounge into the airship's dining room. That let her pick a single table with a window; better honest silence than strained chitchat and glances.
The decor of the dining section was light and airy in the modern style—teak and ebony tiles on the floor, sandalwood chairs carved into fanciful lacework and cushioned in white cotton, chiseled brass tables with inlay and enamel, murals of colorful jungle birds on the exterior walls between windows. It soothed her slightly as she considered the menu. The Diana's kitchen had a rather Central Provinces bent, which was a pleasant change from the Mughal cuisine of Delhi: She ordered baffla wheat cakes rich with ghee and ate them with pungent lentil dal soup and sweet laddoos dumplings, followed by spicy rogan josh, shami-kebab, and sheermal bread. Waiters brought bowls of rosewater to clean the hands, and crisp fluffy towels to dry them.
Squares of iced mango and watermelon on skewers and Assamese tea came after the main courses. She nibbled, sipped, and wondered the while who had had the bad taste and sheer gall to ruin the dining room's effect by picking a reproduction of Lord Leighton's Martyrdom of St. Disraeli as the mural for the interior wall.
She'd seen the original at her coming-out, when she was Presented at court in Delhi twelve years ago; that one was twenty feet high and done in gold, coral, ivory, faience, and semiprecious stones. It was the backdrop to the Lion Throne, after all, staring each generation of young gentlewomen in the face as they were led up and made their curtsey to the King-Emperor and Queen-Empress.
This was an excellent rendering in oils, on the canvas partitions that made up the interior structure of the Diana. Leighton had taken his inspiration from the Exodus Cantos of Kipling's epic Lament for the Lost Homeland; the burning dome of St. Paul's looming behind, "stark flame against a sleet-filled August sky," as the poet had put it and generations of schoolchildren had memorized ever since; the red-coated Foot Guards struggling with the snarling cannibal mob in the foreground and being butchered and devoured even as they fought; Disraeli himself standing alone, draped in a fur cloak as the ice fell about him, looking southward to where the last ship of the Exodus would wait in vain. The great Martyr, dying like Moses without setting foot in the new homeland which he'd prepared for his people.
Heroic. Inspiring. Great art, no doubt. But for a dining room} Whatever could they have been thinking of?
Her generation was less obsessed with the Fall and the Exodus than those before it, in any case. It was ancient history, though she remembered how shocking it had been to hear her grandmother talking of actually meeting Kipling when she was a young girl, a man born before the Fall.
There was a slight hissing sound as the airship's heating system came on, and a rumble as water ballast valved out from the tanks along the keel. Attendants stood by discreetly with oxygen cylinders and masks, in case some lowlander was overcome. They were rising above dense pine forests now, two-hundred-foot Himalayan firs below, then over naked rock above the tree line and the saddle of the Banihar Pass. Below, the railway looked like a child's toy, a puffing locomotive disappearing into the Jawahar Tunnel—she could remember the celebrations when that was finished, not long after her sixth birthday. Snow peaks shimmered ahead and all about, floating in infinite blue and trailing banners of glittering windborne frost as the great airship went sailing silently along the roof of the world.
Cassandra smiled as they crested the heights, and gasps broke out from others at the sight of the Vale of Kashmir below. Garden of the Empire indeed, she thought. And the province of her own birth.
It was supposed to be like the lost Homeland—although from what she'd read, she doubted that terraced vineyards and rice fields had been all that common in pre-Fall England. Certainly this was green and lovely enough in the glowing long-shadow light of sunset; thickly forested mountain slopes surrounding a mile-high patchwork quilt of plowed land, pasture, prosperous farmsteads, the regular lines of apple and peach orchards, almonds and apricots, roads lined with great poplars and chinars and oaks. Parkland and garden surrounded the country seats of landowners and the boarding schools that were almost as numerous—the climate was famous for healthfulness. Some of those schools bore names like Eton and Winchester, United Services and Cheltenham, and they drew children from all over the Empire.
Rexin was there, the King estate near Avantipur. Not really home anymore, she thought, with a trace of sadness, although she was always welcome on visits. Athelstane's, really. I’m an Oxford girl now. The eldest son inherited, and the siblings had to make their own way in the world, by marriage or career.
The city brought further murmurs from the other passengers; Cassandra ignored the ancient monuments, the famous racecourse, polo fields, botanic gardens, and Lord's cricket grounds, even the lakes and the Jehelum River where Cambridge came to row against Oxford and usually be soundly thrashed, which was a high point of the Empire's social year. Her eyes were on the mellow stone of the university's quadrangles, glimpsed among the trees and ivy. The ships of the Exodus had borne books and instruments and scholars, as well as weapons and machinery and hungry refugees crammed into every nook and cranny—more of St. Disraeli's foresight. Work had begun on the university in the fourth year after the Fall, and continued even during the terrible years when survival hung by a hair. The workaday city had grown up around it in the generations that followed.
Now there was a considerable airship port on the lakeside as well, with great arched sheds and another huge silvery shape curving up from the water even as she watched, off south to Delhi and Madras, perhaps even to Singapore and Perth. Sunlight remained on the mountain peaks, tingeing the snow with crimson, but night was falling on the lake and city below. Lights appeared and twinkled, the blue-white of the airship port's electric arcs, the softer yellow and yellow-white of lamp flame and gaslight in the streets and houses beyond.
The Goan steward with the xylophone came through again. "Prepare for landing, memsahibs and sahibs. Prepare for landing, please."
Part of Cassandra King's stomach unclenched. Fairly soon her feet would be on the ground, away from this flying bomb. Another part of her nerves thrummed yet more tautly. That meant she'd have to oversee the priceless cargo that was in her trust, as well.
Yasmini lay still on the narrow bed, for the moment simply enjoying the sensation of space around her. Most people would have considered the little attic room of the Kashmiri inn to be strait quarters. But it was all hers; even the Master had to knock to gain entrance, for appearance sake. None watched or spoke or shouted; there was only the low murmur of sound from below, smells of curry and garlic from the kitchens, wheels and feet from the street outside. Compared to the pens at home, it was a palace. Space and quiet and...
Her mind shied away from freedom with an automatic reflex, as mindless as the flinch before a Master's upraised hand. The time lines where she failed to do that were—How are they worse than what I see? she thought suddenly.
True, they mostly ended in death. Often death by torture. But she was twenty-four years old; she had been Active for nearly ten years. Soon it would be her daughters the Master would want, not her visions.
Unbidden, a face from the dreams. An Anglichani face; a man, young—only a few years older than herself. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, a square jaw, and a thin scar along one cheek. The vision had a sharp outline; only a few paths led to it, then. An overtone that meant the vision was close and personal, something that might happen to her, yet with overtones of weight—enormous, crushing weight.
Her breath came faster, and her hands felt clammy with fear. That meant that whatever it was concerned both her and a huge number of other world lines; instinctively, she strained to see more. The lines twisted. There were glimpses of fire, of a floating sensation unlike anything she had ever known. The clash of sabers, and a body falling into infinite blue space—
No. That way lay death. A wash of no-thought went through her; she controlled her breathing, concentrating instead on an unvarying hum at the back of her mind.
Copyright © 1998 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>